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The Secret Garden

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Wed, 07/13/2016 - 20:57
The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden* by Frances Hodgson Burnett was first published as a book in 1911, having previously been serialized from Autumn 1910 onwards in The American Magazine. It is an ostensibly simple story about a girl, Mary Lennox, who secretly finds the key to the door of a walled garden which has not, supposedly, been tended for ten years. It is a story enjoyed by generations of young readers, but it has deeper themes, which make it a thought-provoking read for adults too.

    The story begins with the nine-year-old protagonist in India. Her English parents take little interest in her and, previously, a succession of governesses had failed to discipline or educate her. She is attended to by Indian servants who pander to her every whim. She is portrayed as a sickly and spoilt child. Her situation dramatically changes with an outbreak of cholera in which her parents and some of the servants die. Mary is sent to England to live at the home of her uncle, Archibald Craven. His home is Misselthwaite Manor, on the edge of a Yorkshire moor.

    The moor is initially presented as a place of foreboding, but even Mrs Medlock, the housekeeper, concedes some see it otherwise: “It’s a wild, dreary enough place to my mind, though there’s plenty that likes it …” (p. 25). Those who like it include the caring, but straight-talking, Yorkshire housemaid, Martha. She tells Mary that she is one of twelve children who live in a cottage on the moor. Her father is low paid and her mother struggles to feed the family. However, Martha describes their situation in a positive light, invoking the moor as a source of good, even making up for a shortage of food: “‘an’ mother says th’ air of th’ moor fattens ’em’” (p. 31). And she tells of her younger brother, Dickon, who loves the outdoors and befriends the animals on the moor. It is true that Burnett at one point has Martha speak of the wind on the moor in language reminiscent of Emily Brontë: “`Listen to th’ wind wutherin round the house’” (p. 44). Yet, Burnett portrays the moor as a source of good, not least as the antidote to the indolence of Mary’s time in the east: “In India she had always felt hot and too languid to care much about anything. The fact was that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of her young brain and to waken her up a little” (p. 44). It is tempting to see this as a comment on the British rule in India with Mary representing languid officials and civil servants ruling over a subservient population. Whatever Burnett’s intentions, although Mary leaves India at the beginning of the story, the country itself and its culture are never far away in the story. And this is no more the case than in the character, Colin.

    Colin is the ten-year-old son of Archibald Craven who Mary only learns about when she hears him crying out. His father is convinced his son is ill and the doctor, a relative who stands to gain if Colin dies, does nothing to argue otherwise. In the midst of this, Colin himself is likewise convinced he is ill; he thinks he is unable to get out of bed and that if he does not die in his youth then he will grow up to be deformed. Yet all the servants obey his every whim and live in fear of his tantrums. Through the eyes of Mary, Burnett draws on the culture of India to describe him: “‘Once in India I saw a boy who was a Rajah. He had rubies and emeralds and diamonds stuck all over him. He spoke to his people just as you spoke to Martha’” (p. 111). Throughout the remainder of the story, Colin is often referred to as the Rajah by Burnett. Yet his Rajah-like authority is central to the plot for by virtue of his authority he is able to order the servants and gardeners to keep away when he is eventually taken by Dickon and Mary to the secret garden. There is, it turns out, nothing wrong with Colin’s health. Any weakness he has is a consequence of his previous lack of exercise. Does, or can, Colin represent the latent potential of Indians living under colonial rule?

    Whatever Burnett’s intentions with regard to her characters representing various aspects of colonialism, and whatever ways the story can be used by others with postcolonial hindsight, at the very least it can be said that Burnett used aspects of Indian culture as an analogy to describe the behaviour of her characters. So, Colin was like a Rajah, but Dickon also is likened to an Indian. When Mary first meets Dickon, she sees creatures gathering round him as he plays a wooden pipe. Burnett writes: “Then Mary realized that somehow she had known at first that he was Dickon. Who else could have been charming rabbits and pheasants as the natives charm snakes in India?” (p. 78). Later, Mary uses the same analogy to describe Dickon to Colin: “He is not like any one else in the world. He can charm foxes and squirrels and birds just as the natives in India charm snakes. He plays a very soft tune on a pipe and they come and listen” (p. 112). This analogy helps to describe Dickon, but it also places the Indian snake charmers in a sympathetic light. Indian culture is not condemned or dismissed in the book, but drawn upon to enrich it.

    And it is not only Mary’s experience in India which is used by Burnett to bring the Indian culture to the fore. Colin’s knowledge of India through reading is also used so that at one point they even mimic devotees in an Indian temple: “Colin was delighted and so was Mary. Fired by recollections of fakirs and devotees in illustrations Colin suggested that they should all sit cross-legged under the tree which made a canopy. ‘It will be like sitting in a sort of temple,’ said Colin” (p. 180). His motive is to draw on the magic which he perceives is causing the garden to grow so that his health might further improve. The notion of magic in the story is also derived from India. When an extra strong gust of wind had moved the ivy to reveal the door to the garden, Mary ascribes this to the magic she had learnt about in India: “Mary Lennox had heard a great deal about Magic in her Ayah's stories, and she always said that what happened almost at that moment was Magic. One of the nice little gusts of wind rushed down the walk, and it was a stronger one than the rest. It was strong enough to wave the branches of the trees, and it was more than strong enough to sway the trailing sprays of untrimmed ivy hanging from the wall” (p. 63). However, there is nothing that actually happens in the story which cannot be explained by natural means. Even the dream which Archibald Craven has of his dead wife while he is away in Europe can be ascribed to coincidence.

    At the heart of the story is, of course, not India, but the secret garden. Mary first learns of the garden from Martha. She tries to find out more from the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, but he is not forthcoming. It is a friendly robin which points the way, eventually leading her to the garden, the buried key and, with the help of the gust of wind, the door hidden by ivy. The garden is overgrown, neglected and still in the throes of late winter, but Mary sees its potential and tentatively begins to tend it. Once she has shown Dickon the garden he brings his knowledge and expertise to bear and the garden starts to thrive. Ten years previously, the garden had been the scene of tragedy, but it becomes the focal point by which the consequences of that event are resolved.

    The foregoing has only touched on the depth of The Secret Garden and there is much more which could be discussed. The detailed recording of the development of Mary Lennox’s character is a case in point. For example, soon after her arrival at the manor, Burnett systematically lists four things which had happened to her: 2She had felt as if she had understood a robin and that he had understood her; she had run in the wind until her blood had grown warm; she had been healthily hungry for the first time in her life; and she had found out what it was to be sorry for some one. She was getting on” (p. 45). Then there is the skilful use of the nursery rhyme, Mistress Mary Quite Contrary, which functions as an apt description of her character early on. And what of the description of Martha’s family’s life on the moor? It is clearly one of great hardship, but is Burnett right to present it in a romantic light where the joy of being close to nature, as seen through the eyes of Martha and Dickon, overrides the difficulties? Yes, there are deep themes in The Secret Garden, but these do not detract from the basic story. Its popularity among young readers is proof of that.

* F. Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, (Wordsworth Classics: Ware, 1993).